“Is there such a thing as an original idea?” is the question posed by the tagline of this thoughtful, fast-paced, and often poignant production. In Steven Drukman’s Death of the Author, the title of which is taken from a famous essay by French intellectual Roland Barthes, and which premieres this month at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the answer to this question is anything but simple. The story centers on Jeff (David Clayton Rogers), a young professor on his way to tenure, who accuses his student Bradley (Austin Butler) of plagiarism. This plot then evolves into an emotional adventure through the uncomfortably conjoined worlds of traditional academia and post-modern literary theory. While the circumstances progress as the play unfolds, its heart, which lies in an obviously deep-seated appreciation for the student-teacher dynamic and the empathetic complications thereof, is most fully illuminated by its ensemble of characters under the tutelage of department chair J. Trumbull Sykes (Orson Bean.)
In the thick of Drukman’s deft writing and the show’s thought-provoking mirrored set design, Bean’s performance emerges as the true soul of the endeavor. Bean’s turn as the soon-to-retire department chair makes this play a must see. Bean, who made his career garnering Tony nominations on Broadway and making recurring appearances on the Tonight Show, is no stranger to the stage. With enormous charm, spot-on pacing, and Broadway-worthy charisma, Bean brings this story to life.
While some of the character development and certain questions of socioeconomic power dynamics felt unfinished, the content and execution of the piece left the audience in delightful discussion immediately after. The complex and savvy presentation of the disintegrating modern-day relationship of Sarah (Lyndon Smith) and Bradley (Butler) proved universally unsettling. The rapport between the warm department chair played by Bean and the professor with whom he fights against the bureaucratic system of the university came across as classic, witty and engaging. Viewers were kept on edge throughout, and by the shows end, we were left questioning the terms of right and wrong, the truth of fact and fiction, and the idea of what role, if any, intention plays in writing..
If the complexities of academia fascinate you, or even if you are just drawn by the promise of one of the most charming performances by a Broadway veteran you’ll see on the west coast, do make the trip for Drukman and Bart DeLorenzo’s richly vibrant work.